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By Randy Wayne White
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.
The bar was on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. It was built of concrete block on a concrete slab in a border town where the desert pressed hard against the slum housing and tequila joints.
The bar had once been painted a fluorescent green. But the Mexican sun had leached the color from it, and now, beneath its red neon sigh, the building looked gray in the summer darkness.
Las Almas Desconocidas.
A fitting name for such a bar, thought James Hawker.
The Bar of the Unknown Souls.
Hawker pulled the hat down low over his eyes and went inside.
The bar was crowded. No one seemed to notice the tall one-armed stranger. He stumbled and tottered his way to the bar, obviously drunk.
Anywhere else the serape and the sweat-ruined cattleman's hat he wore would have looked ludicrous.
But not here.
The place was crammed with Mexican ranch hands and a few Texas cowboys who had crossed the border to blow their month's pay on whores and tequila.
The bartender was a hugely fat Latin with black hair that came to his shoulders. He wore a soiled apron, and there was a tattoo on the back of his hand.
He looked at the stranger expectantly.
"Mescal," the stranger said, as if through numb lips. "Una botella."
The bartender slid the bottle in front of him. "Save your bad Spanish." He said with a sneer. "The mescal is two hundred pesos. The entertainment is another hundred."
At the front of the bar was a low stage. The two speakers above the stage blasted out a Mexican version of "The Stripper." There was a chair in the middle of the stage, and a lanky Anglo woman was bent naked over it.
She wore a blond wig, and her breasts were thin and tubular, scarred by stretch marks.
A very muscular black man slathered oil over her buttocks, occasionally burying his fist inside her. Beside the black man was tied a gigantic male Great Dane.
The woman's expression was worn and vacant, her eyes glazed by drugs.
As the black man untied the dog, the stranger turned away.
He emptied the glass of mescal and said to the bartender, "I was told that a man who wanted to get back into the United States should come here."
The bartender eyed him carefully and moved closer.
"You're drunk," he said.
The stranger swallowed the second glass of mescal. "I have money. I'm not asking for any favors. I can pay."
"You're a gringo. Why should a gringo need help getting into the United States?"
The stranger carefully reached across with his left hand and pulled out the empty right shirt-sleeve from beneath the serape. "I have made enemies of the police there. They have taken this much of me. I wish to give them no more."
The bartender nodded thoughtfully, then disappeared through a door behind the bar into the next room.
The stranger waited. He pretended to gulp another glass of mescal. He wobbled on his stool as if about to pass out.
The bartender returned in a few minutes. The stranger knew that other men had studied him carefully through the two-way mirror behind the rows of liquor bottles.
The bartender leaned close to him. "This thing you ask, it can be done. But it is only at great risk to certain friends of mine. They must be paid for their risks."
The stranger belched and nodded. "I was told ten thousand pesos."
"You were told wrong," the bartender snapped. "It is twenty thousand, plus a thousand pesos for me." He smiled for the very first time, an ugly cigarette-stained smile. "I, too, run risks — as the intermediaro."
The stranger shook his head. He knew that if he agreed immediately to the price, they might suspect him of being an undercover agent. "Far too much," he said. "I do not have that kind of money." He got down off the barstool carefully. "I am sorry. I was given the wrong information. I have come to the wrong place." He picked up the bottle of mescal as if to take it with him.
"Wait," the bartender said quickly. When the stranger turned to listen, he added, "These things can be negotiated. You leave too easily."
The stranger leaned his weight against the bar. "I was told ten thousand pesos."
"Too little, too little, amigo. Have another drink and we will discuss —"
"I will give you fifteen hundred pesos for your help, and another ten thousand for your friends who take the great risks."
The ugly smile returned to the bartender's face. He leaned, whispering.
"When do you wish to leave?"
"As soon as possible."
The stranger nodded. "Yes. Tonight."
"There is a truck with a long trailer behind the bar," the bartender whispered. "Go down the hall to the cuarto de baño — the bathroom. A man will meet you there. You will leave in the truck." The bartender held out his hand. "But first, you pay."
The stranger stabbed his hand into his pocket and brought out a roll of bills. "I will pay you your fifteen hundred now. The rest I will pay to the man with the truck."
The bartender sighed, disgusted. The stranger was drunk, but he was no fool.
Behind them the roomful of men suddenly broke into loud hoots and whistles of approval at something they saw on the stage.
The bartender thought it odd that the stranger did not even turn to look.
The restroom of the Mexican bar stank of urine and sour beer.
The stranger waited outside, slumped in his serape, trying to look smaller than he was.
A door at the back of the building opened, and two men came toward him.
"You pay us," the bigger of the two said. "You give us the money, and we put you on the truck." He held out his hand impatiently.
The stranger eyed them warily. "When I'm on the truck — that's when I'll pay you."
The two Mexican men looked at each other and broke into wolfish chuckles. They found the defiance of this drunken American laughable. There was really no need for him to pay them the money, for they planned to take all his money, anyway.
"As you wish," said the largest Mexican. "You pay us when we put you on the truck."
The stranger considered the mescal bottle for a moment, holding it up to the bare light bulb that protruded from the ceiling. There was just a little left, and he emptied the bottle with one gulp before dropping it on the floor.
The glass shattered across the concrete.
The two Mexicans, still smiling, looked at each other and nodded knowingly.
The stranger took two wobbly steps toward the door before collapsing. He knew that pretending to pass out was less painful than being knocked out by the blackjack the smaller Mexican was doing a bad job of hiding.
He felt them go through his pockets and take the money.
He was thankful they didn't search beneath the serape. The roll of peso notes had been enough to convince them he carried no hidden stash. But money wasn't what he was afraid of their finding.
They dragged him by the feet through the doorway and across the back lot. There was the metallic sound of a deadbolt being opened, and then he was pulled roughly up onto the sheet-metal bedding of a semi-tractor-trailer truck. There was the sound of cardboard boxes being moved away, and then the stranger felt his left hand being handcuffed to the wall of the truck, as he'd known it would be.
The big Mexican made a joke about his having only one arm, and where they might latch the other handcuff.
Before they left, they gave rough orders in rapid Spanish. The stranger heard the meek replies of voices he had not heard before.
He was not the only one chained in the truck.
Finally the trailer's door slammed closed, and James Hawker opened his eyes.
Out of some unexpected courtesy they had left a small battery-operated lamp burning. The soft golden light made the trailer seem cavernlike. Hawker studied the men and women with him. There were about twenty — all handcuffed to the trailer wall. They sat uncomfortably on the floor, watching him. Except for him, they were all Latins or Indios. Their ages varied, but none were old. They all looked to be younger than fifty and in good health.
It made sense.
The Texas land barons who were behind this organization didn't want any old slaves.
Like the livestock on their massive ranches, they wanted the people they kidnapped into slavery to be young and sleek and fit.
Hawker sat up and pushed his western hat back. He scanned the faces staring at him.
"Does anyone here speak English?" he asked calmly.
There was a long silence. It was obvious that none of them had expected to see an Anglo among them.
"It's okay," he said gently. "I'd like to help you, if I can."
A girl who sat across from him hesitated, then said in perfect English, "How could you possibly help? You are chained just as we are." She made a face of distaste. "And you smell like ... like you've taken a bath in tequila."
Hawker smiled and threaded his right arm back through his shirt-sleeve and brought it from beneath his serape. "Mescal," he said as he reached down into his sock and fished out a ring of handcuff master keys. "It was mescal I took a bath in, not tequila." He looked at her and winked. "I guess it's to your credit that you can't tell the difference."
Her cheeks flushed as Hawker began to try the keys one by one on the single cuff that held him. She had one of those ageless Mayan faces. High cheekbones. Nut-colored skin. Onyx-black hair that hung down over the surprisingly ripe bosom swell. Hawker guessed her to be about eighteen, though she could have been thirty just as easily. But Indio women tend to get chubby and domestic when they hit their mid-twenties, and there was nothing chubby about this one. She was long and lithe, and Hawker could see that she had been crying.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Cristoba. Cristoba de Abella."
"Do you know where they're taking you, Cristoba?" Hawker asked after telling her his own name.
Her chin trembled slightly. She shook her head. "All I know is that I was waiting on a bus to take me back to the University of Mexico in Mexico City when those ... those bastards shoved me in a car, and then they stuck me with something ... a needle, I guess ... and then I woke up here."
"How long ago was that?"
"I have no idea."
"What was it like — the stuff they stuck you with?"
The girl averted her eyes from his for the first time. "It knocked me out. That's all I know."
"No, it didn't," Hawker pressed. "The stuff they gave you felt good. You liked it."
Her face crinkled and she burst suddenly into tears. "You act like I wanted them to do it. Yes, it made me feel good, dammit! But I don't know what it was! I just want to go home...."
The girl sagged away, swinging slightly on the handcuffs that held her. The other Mexicans and Indios in the trailer began to speak fast Spanish at Hawker, and their looks were threatening. Who was this nasty Anglo to upset this poor, pretty girl who already had enough trouble?
Hawker still worked furiously at his cuffs, trying key after key. If none of the hundred and twenty-seven keys worked, he would have to use the tiny hacksaw blade he had brought.
As he worked at the cuffs he spoke to the girl. "I'm not accusing you of anything, Cristoba," he said softly. "And there's no reason for you to feel guilty. They gave you heroin. In a way, I guess, you should feel flattered. They don't waste it on everyone. Only the very strong and the very valuable. They want to have a hook in you so the person who buys you can be sure you'll stick around."
The girl's quick intake of air was like a whispered scream. "Sell me?" Her hand went to her mouth. "Oh, my God, you don't really mean that?"
Finally Hawker found the right key. The lone handcuff snapped open, and he rubbed his wrist to get the blood flowing again. "I'm afraid I do," he said. "And I want you to tell the others what is planned for them. They're going to drive this truck back into the United States. The border guards have already been paid. By early tomorrow we'll be somewhere within a hundred miles of Houston. Just after sunrise a very small and elite group of Texas land barons are going to have an auction."
Hawker looked deep into her eyes. "Most of the men and women in this truck will be sold as field hands and house servants. Like me, they paid the bartender inside that rat-hole bar to find them a way to gain entry into the U.S. illegally. But a girl as young and beautiful as you will bring top price, and it won't be because those bastards think you're a good cook. That's why they gave you the heroin. And that's why they're going to keep giving it to you until you're hooked so completely that you'd never give a thought to running away from your only source of the stuff."
For a second Hawker thought the girl was going to break into tears again. But then her face became a stoic mask, and her brown eyes burned. She jerked at her cuffs. "Get me out of these," she hissed. "Let me loose. Free us all, and the moment they open that door —"
"I can't," Hawker cut in. "Those two Mexican guards are almost sure to check us one more time before they pull out."
"But you've freed yourself!"
"Keep your voice down, Cristoba," Hawker whispered calmly. "I'll fix my cuff so it looks like it's still locked, and they'll think I'm still passed out, so they won't even bother to check me. But I can't take that chance with the others. Don't you see? We have to make this trip tonight. I have to find out where they're taking you people and who's involved. Sure, I could probably fight our way out of here right now. But that's not going to help the people they've already kidnapped — and the people they'll kidnap in the future. When they've taken us to the very source of this slavery ring, Cristoba, I'll free you." Hawker leaned across the truck and patted her warm shoulder gently. "You'll be safe with me. I promise you that. But I have to do it my own way."
The girl leaned her weight briefly against his hand. Her head was bowed shyly, and she looked up at him. "There is something in your eyes that I trust."
"And you understand?"
"Then tell the others, Cristoba. Tell them what I have planned, and tell them to obey my every gesture. If they do, we've got a chance to get out of this thing safely —"
Hawker was interrupted by the sound of the truck starting: a sputtering diesel roar. And then the bolt on the trailer door slammed open, and the two Mexicans shoved the boxes away.
Hawker settled back beneath his hat, as if still unconscious. He expected them to check a few of the cuffs and take a head count.
But that's not what happened.
He heard an unfamiliar voice yelling in Spanish, and just as it came to him that one of the "slaves" handcuffed with him in the truck was really a plant, he heard Cristoba de Abella scream, "James, look out! They know!"
Hawker jerked his left hand free from its chain while sliding his right hand beneath the serape. He rolled hard across the trailer deck as two ear-shattering explosions ricocheted slugs off the metal floor behind him.
He heard a familiar scream, and his peripheral vision registered that the beautiful Indian girl's arm now oozed blood as she writhed beneath her chains.
Hawker brought his customized Colt Commander .45 to bear on the face of the smaller of the two Mexican guards and squeezed the trigger.
The revolver the Mexican had been holding slammed against the ceiling as his thick face splattered gore. The scream that had materialized on his lips was never uttered as the impact of the heavy .45 slug jolted his head back, broke his neck, and knocked his corpse to the floor.
In the same instant the bigger of the two Mexicans charged Hawker and kicked the Colt savagely from his hand.
Hawker tackled him around the ankles and wrestled him to the deck. The Mexican brought his revolver up to fire, but Hawker twisted it away with his left hand while putting all his weight behind a right fist that crushed the man's throat closed.
The Mexican's eyes bulged, and his feet kicked wildly on the deck as his throat hissed, fighting for air.
"James, look out!" screamed Cristoba de Abella.
The warning was unnecessary. The man who had obviously been planted inside the trailer to keep an eye on the kidnap victims was a huge man with massive shoulders. Earlier Hawker had noticed him only in passing: a man who looked like a prime slave candidate for the fields.
Now he was kneeling to pick up the revolver that had been knocked from the smaller Mexican's hands.
Excerpted from Houston Attack by Randy Wayne White. Copyright © 1985 Dell Publishing Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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